Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday that his administration is embarking on a two-year campaign aimed at curbing the spread of rat lungworm disease and soothing the public’s jitters over eating local produce.

“We are bringing together local experts from relevant fields to increase public awareness, improve our response activities, and explore ways to control and treat the disease,” Ige said. “They will work together with the joint task force we established last year to step up prevention efforts beyond Hawaii Island, where the first cases were reported.”

The campaign, led by the Hawaii Department of Health, is financed by the funds that the Legislature set aside in May — $500,000 in each of the next two fiscal years — in response to a spike in reported cases of rat lungworm disease.

Dr. Virginia Pressler MD, Department of Health speaks to media with Governor Ige, Left, Kenton Kramer PhD, Dept of Tropical Medicine, JANSOM, Chair, Joint Task Force to combat rat lungworm disease.
Dr. Virginia Pressler, director of the Hawaii Department of Health, unveiled a two-year, $1 million campaign to help curb the spread of rat lungworm disease. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to Dr. Virginia Pressler, director of the Health Department, 15 cases of rat lungworm disease have been confirmed so far this year, the highest number recorded since 2007.

Pressler said the department will devote much of the funds earmarked for the first year to a “statewide public awareness campaign,” spending as much as $300,000 to produce education materials — such as brochures, door hangers and flyers — and to secure some TV and radio commercial spots.

The funds will also allow the department to hire two temporary staffers to coordinate the campaign among the state’s partners, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pressler said the CDC will help conduct a first-of-its-kind study that examines rats, slugs and snails — the host and the carriers of a parasitic worm called Angiostrongylus cantonensis that causes rat lungworm disease, which can trigger eosinophilic meningitis.

“We appreciate the Legislature’s support in allowing the state to accelerate our efforts on this important initiative,” Pressler said. “The funds will provide much needed resources for our public health communications efforts, as well as strengthen our disease investigation and vector control measures for rat lungworm disease.”

But missing conspicuously from the campaign is the work of Susan Jarvi, co-founder of the Hawaii Island Rat Lungworm Working Group.

Jarvi, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, has been struggling to get enough funding to keep her lab running, unable to tackle some projects that she says could prove key to curbing the spread of rat lungworm disease.

“One of the big research projects we’ve been trying to get funding for is what kills a larva — there must be commercially available vegetable washes out there that would kill a larva,” Jarvi said. “I’m pretty sure there are and I would like to do those studies to find out.”

Dr. Lorrin Pang, Hawaii’s chief health officer for Maui, searches for semi-slugs that carry the rat lungworm parasite. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

Jarvi says she has cobbled together a range of grants and donations to keep her lab operating for another several months, but all bets are off after that.

“I’m glad that the Department of Health is finally doing something at least,” Jarvi said. “But we can’t solve this problem by largely focusing on education.”

For her part, Pressler denied that the department is leaving out Jarvi’s work from the campaign, noting that she’s part of a task force on rat lungworm disease that Ige created last year.

“We’re all working together on this now,” Pressler said.

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